Two resources for native species reforestation in Panama

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A couple of years ago the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) published a “how to” guide to reforestation using native species in Panama in hardcover. They recently released the publication in digital form. This report summarizes the findings of STRI’s effort to identify commercially viable native timber species and increase adoption of these species among farmers and forestry project promoters.  

STRI researchers also released another paper that looks at mixed native species plantations’ growth rates for 5 species: yellow wood (Terminalia Amazonia), rosewood (Dalbergia Retusa), spiny cedar (Pachira Quinata), espave sp. (Anacardium Excelsum), and tropical oak (Tabebuia rosea). This paper is relevant to us because all 5 species are present in our plantations (the espave and tropical oak occur naturally). Interestingly, the study finds that each of the species yielded more biomass when planted together (mixed plantations) than when they were planted as monocultures. The yellow wood did best--something we’ve seen anecdotally in PE’s plantations.

We were happy to see that for the most part our plantations implemented all of the best practice guidance now catalogued in this new guide.

Panama, and especially the Darién, desperately need more native species restoration, so we are pleased about these two new resources. All of the species Planting Empowerment planted in our mixed native species plantations are considered in one or both of these resources, and we will continue to measure our plantations and share the results so that others can learn from our experience.

Our operations are open to the public, so if you’re ever going to be in Panama or visiting the Darien, just send us a note and we can arrange for a tour.

April Site Visit with Friends and Update

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I was recently in Panama for a conference on Forests and Climate Change at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and took the opportunity to visit Planting Empowerment’s operations in Arimae and Nuevo Paraiso.

My flight path into Panama City took me from the NW corner in Bocas del Toro over the central provinces of Veraguas and Cocle before landing in Panama City. Below, smoldering patches of land dotted the deep green forests, reminding me that April still is the time in Panama when farmers burn their fields in preparation for rainy season planting. Kind of a depressing way to start the trip, but at least I was going to visit Planting Empowerment’s plantations where trees are growing on land that was once also charred and bare.

Colleagues from the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund all joined me on the trip. They work on tropical forest conservation at a global level, so it was a treat for them to see an example of sustainable forestry in the field (not just read about it from a case study).

The road out to the Darien was probably in the best shape I’ve seen it in years with only a couple sections suffering from potholes, and those were even quite small compared to previous years.

 Mateo (far left) with Planting Empowerment employees in Nuevo Paraiso.

Mateo (far left) with Planting Empowerment employees in Nuevo Paraiso.

I had one important errand to execute while visiting our partner community Arimae. Sadly, one of our former field managers Mateo Johnson passed away unexpectedly in February. In his memory, we decided to make a $500 contribution to the community, and I consulted with Arimae’s chiefs on how to put the contribution to best use. The chiefs consulted the community and we all agreed on supporting some of their recent legal costs incurred for evicting some squatters from their territory. Mateo was always passionate about supporting Arimae’s efforts to secure their land title, so we felt this was a good way to memorialize him.

My colleagues and I didn’t have much time, so started early in the morning visiting the tree plantations in Arimae. Long time collaborator and Arimae resident Yem Dogirama guided us with his trusty machete and answered all of our questions. The plantations there had been recently “cleaned”--undergrowth vegetation cleared by hand with machete--in preparation for a needed pruning happening this month. The low undergrowth made it slightly easier for us to navigate through the plantations, and allows for easier pruning. Pruning of the trees happens at the end of the dry season right before the rains hit and the trees turn on their growth engines.

 Howler monkeys playing in the trees

Howler monkeys playing in the trees

We were able to pass through three different plantations in Arimae (planted in 2007, 2008, and 2012) to see the differences in age and also the numerous native species mix used in our model. On our way out to the Darien, we saw the monoculture Teak plantations that are almost as common as cattle pasture now. The visitors were impressed with the visual difference of biodiversity between our plantations and the monoculture Teak ones.

After Arimae, we moved quickly to Nuevo Paraiso to visit the remaining two plantation sites. Despite one of my colleagues puncturing her hand on Spiny Cedar tree, we made it through the two sites and even saw a troupe of Howler monkeys resting in the branches of one of our Amarillo trees (terminalia amazonia). A real treat to seem them up close.

Overall, the plantations and the communities seem to be doing well.

If you are ever in Panama and interested in seeing our operations, please do let us know as setting up a tour is not that difficult. Thanks to the improved road, the plantations are only a 3-hour drive from the airport/Panama City. Seeing the trees really is inspirational and photos do not do them justice. We hope to host you soon!

The Forests and Climate Change conference was great, and I was able to catch up with Dr. Jefferson Hall, one of STRI’s tropical forestry researchers and author of a great book on reforestation in the tropics. During the conference there was much discussion about the need for reforestation and its importance, not only for climate change mitigation, but also the essential services forests provide like watershed protection and livelihoods for local communities.

An evening reception held at Panama’s premier Ecolodge the Canopy Tower--owned by one of Planting Empowerment’s investors--provided us with great birding and views of ships passing through the Panama Canal from the literal tree tops.

Cocobolo back in the news

 Decomissioned cocobolo logs in the Azuero province of Panama. Photo courtesy of La Prensa.

Decomissioned cocobolo logs in the Azuero province of Panama. Photo courtesy of La Prensa.

Rosewood was in the news recently because new export laws have been impacting the transportation and export of music instruments containing rosewood components. About a week later, we read in the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa that the Ministry of Environment busted a truckload of illegal rosewood--or “cocobolo”--in the Azuero province of Panama.

As in Panama, globally the illegal harvesting of cocobolo continues to be a problem as Asian demand (mostly China) for furniture made from it continues unabated. In Panama and at least in the Darien, the rosewood “fever” that occurred during 2014-2015 seemed to have dissipated, but that also could be because most of the easy to get rosewood has been cut. It has been awhile since we’ve heard stories of roots of rosewood trees being dug up to make sure they get every last piece. It was being sold by the pound during that time.

Our fincas include cocobolo among other tropical hardwoods. Our anecdotal experience is that the rosewood trees thrive in our mix of native species. What we don’t know is if the tree will be mature enough to have developed “rose” colored heartwood by the end of the 25-year lease cycle. However, if they have not developed heartwood, we can leave them to grow and our local partners will be able to benefit from them in the future. The benefit of growing trees is that they only increase in value the older and larger they grow.

While we hope the illegal harvesting of these beautiful trees is stopped, there should be a place for the use of the beautiful wood in the instruments recently profiled. We want our farms to be a source of legal and sustainable cocobolo for those instruments. In only about 12 more years we should know if we will be able to. We will keep you posted.

Panama trip update July 2017

I was in Panama the week of July 17, following the passing of one of our land lease partners Juan Cruz. My main goal was to make sure the new owner of the land, Juan's widow Rosa, is still on board with the project, and make any administrative changes necessary to ensure a smooth transition. I also had a chance to check in on all the operations and meet up with our operations director Francisco.

Though sad, Juan's passing was not surprising. He was in his 80's and had heart problems ever since before I knew him 10+ years ago. From what Rosa explained, he was often stubborn about going to his medical appointments, and had other medical problems in addition to his heart. As one of the founders of Nuevo Paraiso, he will be missed by his numerous children and grandchildren.

Before he died Juan divided his land holdings between Rosa and his two sons. Our five-hectare lease sits within Rosa's land, and she is keen to continue working with us and receive land lease payments. We set up a new cooperative account in the name of Rosa and her daughter Mygdaliz to receive the lease payments. Mygdaliz lives in Panama City and therefore is easier to get in touch with. Strategically, maintaining this relationship is important because we expect Rosa will eventually pass the land to Mygdaliz.  

This was the first time we've dealt with a change in land owner, and it seems to be going smoothly.  

Last dry season we suffered a fire in Juan's (now Rosa's) finca. The fire came in through a narrow swath running along the river, where we didn't expect anyone to be burning. Usually, the danger comes from people burning in their adjacent fields in preparation for the planting season. The fire burned away the crowns of the native species and caused the bark on the trees to crack. Lacking bark coverage, the trees are susceptible to fungus and insect attacks and most won't survive. The good news is that the teak resisted the fire a lot better than the native species. We will let the affected native species trees die off naturally and focus on maximizing the production of the other blocks of trees.

In Chico's finca (the one planted in 2007), the blocks of teak are looking good and will be thinned out in the next couple of months. We have been on the lookout for a buyer for the teak, but so far have not had any luck. We have a block of mahogany growing very well, and some of these trees will be thinned to create space for the larger ones. Our operations manager Francisco wants to experiment with a technique called tree-topping instead of clear cutting the trees marked for removal. This would leave the trees standing, but remove their crown to reduce sunlight competition. Theoretically, the trees would no longer grow upwards, but would rather increase in girth and therefore can be left to harvest for later.

Jose "Ino", who used to work for us on a permanent basis in Nuevo Paraiso, is doing well, and his wife Esther just had their 4th child (he says this will be the last one). Ino has been a dependable talent for us, and we expect to work with him on the thinning of the Nuevo Paraiso plantations.

In Arimae, I walked through fincas 1-3 with our point of contact Yem. Fincas #1-2 have been thinned. We left the native trees to decompose on the forest floor and stockpiled the teak in case we find a buyer. We noticed that the cedro amargo trees (cedrela odorata) have been growing strongly here. The teak trees are on the whole looking good, with the largest ones exceeding 12" in diameter. They need to be de-branched (podar) to make sure the wood they eventually yield is knot-free.

The teak that I saw in the #3 finca is looking very good - tall, straight, and little bifurcation. These also need to be de-branched, and could even be thinned. Planted in 2012, this teak will eventually surpass our teak planted in 2007-2008, a testament to the importance of weed suppression early on. We took the motorized branch trimmer (it's a chainsaw on a pole) to be repaired, and rigged up another manual tree trimmer with an aftermarket saw blade. So, now we have two functioning branch trimmers ready to go.

Meanwhile, the roads and infrastructure is improving in the Darien. The Ministerio de Obras Publicas has been re-paving the roads and is actually installing guardrails along some stretches, and soon there will be legitimate bridges over the rivers in the Nuevo Paraiso area.

Tree nurseries in Panama - our experience

 Women sorting saplings for the 2012 planting in Arimae

Women sorting saplings for the 2012 planting in Arimae

We recently read about a new 1 million unit tree nursery the Panamanian government set up to provide seedlings for the reforestation of the Azuero province. The nursery is part of a pledge announced last year by MiAmbiente to reforest 1 million hectares of land in Panama.

The lack of details in the article open up broader questions about how Panamanian government is executing on its pledge, but we are most interested in who will be buying the seedlings, where they will be planted, and how they will be cared for.

We had the opportunity a few years ago to set up and manage a 6,000 seedling nursery with our community partners in Arimae, and learned a few things that might offer context on this effort.

  1. There is low demand from the ranchers and farmers for the seedlings - even if given away for free.

  2. Most Panamanian farmers/ranchers are familiar with a number of native species and are adept at collecting and growing seedlings by themselves.

  3. There are a number of commercial nurseries that can produce significant amounts of seedlings for reforestation - even native species.

  4. Nurseries can be expensive to sustain and haven’t had great success in being run by the Panamanian government.

The first year of our nursery was successful because the nursery had a committed buyer: Planting Empowerment purchased the majority of the seedlings and the community used the rest for a community rosewood (cocobolo) plantation. Sources of seeds for the nursery were scouted by our forest technician at the time - Jose Deago - who happened to be Panama’s leading expert on the topic.

The first year was also the nursery’s best year. The next year, production fell by half after we adjusted down our planting. Additional buyers for the seedlings were non-existent, even though the seedlings were high quality, adapted to local conditions (local seed sourced) and produced using the tray/tube system instead of the heavier plastic bags. Community members were interested in free seedlings, but not willing to pay the $.50/seedling costs to make the nursery sustainable. The community dismantled the nursery in the 3rd year.

Our other experiences with tree nurseries demonstrate that it’s a tough business and you really have to know what quality you’re going to get. For one of our first farms planted in 2008 we sourced some of the seedlings from a government nursery. About half of seedlings were high quality, but the rest were unusable because they were at least a year old and too mature to be planted out. For subsequent plantings, we purchased seedlings from some of the many commercial nurseries that supply the large plantation companies and the nursery at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (which has subsequently closed, too).

We wish this new project by the government success because Panama needs reforestation and nurseries will need to produce the seedlings for a portion of this. We are also supportive of the native species focus of the reforestation effort. However, we hope the government might learn from past initiatives, and Planting Empowerment’s experiences, in order to make their investments in reforestation more economically viable.